Headline of the day (hint: it involves beetles and poo)

Wired has a short but charming article on the recent discovery, by researchers at South Africa’s Wits University, that dung beetles have an interesting method of thermoregulation.

Those of you who are geeks probably already know that dung beetles got their name due to their dietary preference for, well, dung. (I was going to say “fecal matter,” but that seems a bit too academic for this post.) Some species live in the dung, others bury it, but the most famous ones, the ones we’ve all seen in pictures, transport their food source by compacting it into a little ball and rolling it back to a nest site. This group of dung beetle species is called — wait for it — rollers.

Rollers engage in something called the orientation dance, in which the beetles climb on top of their dung ball in order to get a better view of their surroundings and figure out where to roll the ball next. What the Wit University researchers noticed, while observing this orientation dance, was that the beetles climbed up on their dung balls more often when the ground was hot.

Which led to the following Wired headline:

Study: Dung beetles cool their heels atop balls of poo

Best of all was how the researchers checked their hypothesis. How can you be sure the beetles are cooling their heels on their poo balls? Why, you fit them with tiny little silicone boots!

I am not making this up. But I am easily imagining who got stuck with that job — it had to be some poor graduate students. On the positive side, they’re guaranteed to have one of the best conversational ice breakers of all time: “So what do you do?” “Oh, I fit little silicone boots onto the legs of dung beetles.”

It worked, though. Boot-wearing beetles climbed up on their dung balls less often than their sartorially-disadvantaged peers. The beetles are indeed using their poo balls for more than just food.

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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5 Responses to Headline of the day (hint: it involves beetles and poo)

  1. Lilaine says:

    When I saw the post title, I knew there was going to be some fun in there… 🙂
    Hilarious! I can’t stop laughing! 😀

    The beetles are indeed using their poo balls for more than just food.

    Before you know it, they’ll be playing football! 😉
    Soccer, that is… :p

    When my niece was just a little kid, I taught her a nice word: coprophage, and told her to say that to any other little kid who’d bother her (she was complaining about that, so… I thought that could help :D).
    I told her the meaning of the word, with examples like the dung beetle, and then I said: “They won’t know what that means, but you will. That’s all the point.. and the fun! And if one of them is curious enough to look it up in the dictionary, becomes angry and comes back at you with vengeful purpose, you can always stop them by flashing your best smile (irresistible, she was!) and saying : ‘Hey, now! I taught you a new word! You should thank me for that.’ ”
    I hadn’t heard again about that episode until her mother (my ex-sister-in-law) recounted me that Céline taught her the meaning of coprophage (they were visiting a zoo and read the word on some explanatory board) and told her how she knew it. “Of course”, she said. “I should have guessed you were behind all that!” 😉

  2. Rene says:

    That should be Wits University. Wit University means White University (as in the colour and the race).

  3. Ana_ñ says:

    Hilarious indeed. So much so that I had to SEE those boots.
    They play soccer, Lilaine, and are excellent goalkeepers.

    Here: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/10/22/dung-beetle-air-conditoning-ball-poo/
    The headline here has a tech touch

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